|The teacher's role has
changed in recent years. There has been a shift of emphasis from instructional
techniques to developing learning techniques. Our role is no longer that of the
"sage on the stage". Today our role leans more towards facilitator or
"guide on the side". Our role is to increase student motivation and develop the
skills or strategies that make a student more competent and to structure the learning
environment so that students are able to take ownership of their own learning.
Fortunately, many of the strategies that "empower" and "engage"
students also lead to increased motivation. The focus here is on the strategies that
teachers may use to develop and maintain motivation in school age students.
and achievement have long been
recognized to have a close cause-effect relationship, as of course have ability and
achievement. The anticipated relationship is: the higher the ability, the higher
the expected achievement levels. However logical this premise might appear
to be, it does not
always prove to be the case. It is therefore understandable that research into the
connection between motivation, ability and achievement has focused on the underachieving
gifted student because they are the examples that are most difficult to explain. In fact
the term underachievement is often defined as "a student whose ability and
performance are significantly discrepant." Consequently, underachieving
and unmotivated are often considered synonymous.
Joanne Rand Whitmore's
Giftedness, Conflict and
Underachievement (1980) and Sylvia Rimm's Underachievement Syndrome (1986) both
deal with this concept in some depth. Ms. Whitmore was a teacher whose research mainly
took place between 1967-1979 in her own classroom. Dr. Sylvia Rimm whose experiences
as a teacher, clinical psychologist and the parent of 4 children has been the Director of
a family clinic for many years. Her knowledge and expertise in identifying many different
causes and symptoms of underachievement are based on her clinical experiences. She
continues to help parents of underachieving, difficult and/or unmotivated children
via television and the internet. She directs the Family Achievement Clinic at the
Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry
and pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Her home page
may be found at URL: http://www.sylviarimm.com/
My experiences as a teacher dealing with underachieving
students from time to time have been greatly influenced by these two women. Their insight
and books have contributed to my own techniques for dealing with unmotivated students. As
have so many of the authors of books relating to the development of critical and creative
thinking skills, constructivist philosophy and self directed learning methodologies.
However, the ideas listed below are not just culled from the research done by others, they
are a list of the techniques that I have used with unmotivated students over
a 15 year period and found to be very successfully for gifted students
in a pull-out program and in a regular classroom.
The main difference between high ability achievers and
high ability underachievers is that the achievers have
learned the attitudes and strategies that enable them to be
successful in a school setting.
Joanne Rand Whitmore, 1980
|In my experience... achievement depends on willingness to accept a
challenge, take risks, make errors and the belief that one has the control over the
outcomes. Achievement is hindered by
perfectionism, fear of failure, and the belief that control, credit and/or blame belong to
Theroux Jan 1994
trying any of the following strategies it is important to begin by
establishing the idea that treating them differently is not unfair, it
is respecting their differences. Students need to recognize
that they are all different and that treating them the same is not always
appropriate or effective.
are many strategies for motivating students. However, any one technique
may not be appropriate for all students at the same time nor effective for
even one student for extended periods of time.
strategies need to be applied individually and changed frequently so that
they do not become ineffective through over use.
1. Challenge Them
Offer student opportunities to undertake real
challenges. Encourage them to take intellectual risks. This gives students an opportunity
to discover the relationship between effort and success; between success and motivation,
and to develop higher self-concept. If the students do not see the need to make an effort
they sometimes will not bother to make one. Even brilliant students are not motivated to
achieve if the work is too easy. Gifted behaviours are often not evident until the student
is actually being challenged. Most children are excited by a challenge if
they have the
strategies that they need to succeed. (See strategy # 5)
2. Build on Strengths First
Building on strengths first give students an
opportunity to use their talents to achieve success by developing their strengths. While
they are engaged in these successful tasks we can help them to learn how to improve other
skills (teach to specific needs) in an environment where the child cares about doing
a good job.
When the primary focus is on student weaknesses
students are spending much of their time being unsuccessful, practicing what they do
badly. This lowers self esteem and lowers motivation.
Failure is unmotivating. Success is motivating
students understand why they are succeeding and are able to develop their confidence
3. Offer Choices
Offering choices develops ownership. When the child
makes decisions he or she is more likely to accept ownership & control of the results.
This sense of control fosters responsibility. When the control belongs to the teacher so
does the ownership. However, always offer choices that are equally acceptable in your
Negotiate-How can students have input in order to reach
the required goals? Can they reach necessary goals their way? When they achieve a
non-negotiable goal perhaps they may have input on the follow-up activity. Remember it is
not realistic for students of differing abilities to be expected to aim for the same goal
using the same method. When children are offered opportunities to make decisions they
learn a great deal about the consequences of their choices.
They also learn to value themselves and their own
decision-making ability. Where ever it is appropriate, take advantage of the student's
talents and interests to motivate them. Choices can be offered in the areas of: Topics,
learning Processes (methodologies) and Products. Within any set topic or theme there are
usually a variety of sub-topics where students may identify a personal interest. Learning
processes can be varied and students can be encouraged to find alternative strategies for
solving problems & then they can discuss the merits and disadvantages of each. Permit
student the choice of product. There are hundreds of alternatives ways of producing
information. For checklists of alternative Topic, Process & Product ideas.
4. Provide a Secure Environment
Permit children to fail without penalty. Learning how
to deal with failure is critical for developing motivation and successful learning.
Students should learn that they can and must learn from their mistakes. Fear of failure
sometimes causes students to deliberately sabotage their own efforts because deliberate
failure is easier to accept than the failures to which they fall victim. (No control is
equated with being powerless.)
5. Teach Them How to Make Their Tasks More
Narrowing or broadening the topic to a challenging but
manageable size is very important for developing motivation. However, it is not just
sufficient for us to just give them manageable activities. Not only is this is an
essential problem solving strategy, but it is also an essential life skill. Children need
to know how they can make their own activities more manageable. Even the most challenging
tasks can be made more manageable by breaking them down into smaller parts and
then prioritizing the steps. As each small part is achieved a measure of success is attained.
As the successes mount up students begin to recognize their own enthusiasm for learning.
(Effort and Struggle during skill development results in Success and Motivation)
6. Use Rewards & Punishment with
Although there are appropriate places in education for
both rewards and punishment, they are both external factors that can rob students of
personal control. Obviously there must be consequences for different kinds of behaviors,
and real success needs some kind of recognition or attention.
However, both rewards and punishment can be negative
factors in developing intrinsic motivation. Rewards cause students to work for the wrong
reasons. Punishment often fosters resentment and lack of co-operation. When rewards are
external factors, motivation is also external and it will only apply when monitored
Rewards are most effective when used with lower ability
or unmotivated students when the rewards is used for a short time only.
- Never use rewards over a long period.
- Never increase the reward for increased
- Decrease the rewards as soon as they begin to become
effective. Long use only reinforces the external control.
The real reward for good work must
eventually become the
satisfaction derived from effort and success.
7. Help Students Develop An Internal Locus
Locus of control is closely related to motivation.
Students who feel they have the power to control some events in their lives are more
likely to become self motivated than students who see themselves as powerless. If they
don't believe they have any power/control over the events in their lives... then
everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault, not theirs.
The child who perceives that he or she has no power
will either see himself as a victim of chance (and/or other people's power) or as a
warrior who needs to gain power to control or manipulate other people in order to
avoid being helpless.
Children who have been loved too much, controlled too
much, given too much power too early, rescued and/or blamed too often tend to be
manipulative. Almost all unmotivated underachieving children manipulative adults by
either active or passive behaviors.
8. Avoid Power Struggles
Poorly motivated students are often very manipulative.
Avoid power struggles whenever possible, and never get into a power struggle unless you
have the means to win. Choose your battles. Children who engage in power
struggles also need to be offered choices, but the choices
must always be limited to the ones that you find acceptable.
9. Use Ambiguity Occasionally
Give children opportunities to learn strategies for
dealing with ambiguity and or frustration. Some children are convinced that every question
has only one right answer. Help them realize that there is often more than one right
method or answer.
If they see all questions as being either right or
wrong they will probably see themselves as being good when they are right and bad when
they are wrong. This doesn't leave much room for motivation.
Brainstorming with someone else is an excellent
strategy for looking for alternative interpretations of and solutions to the problem of
Frustration can be motivating when you have problem
solving strategies and you see problems as something to be solved rather than to be
Unmotivated underachieving students
avoidance rather than an effective strategy when frustrated.
10. Offer Open-ended Activities to Develop
Give them opportunities and strategies to develop their
Students perform with higher motivation when their
creativity is engaged. Challenge students to construct original & creative products
to support their written reports.
11. Teach Students to Evaluate Themselves
Self-evaluation needs to address the questions:
"What was done well?" & "How can it be improved?" It is far
more powerful for students to recognize the answers to these questions than it is for them
to be told the answers.
Student self-evaluation is often difficult for the
first few attempts. Students want to achieve a high evaluation but are reluctant to
"brag" about their success. It has been my experience that the majority of
students lean towards being too hard on themselves, but some students can be
unrealistically generous initially. The ability to realistically evaluate ones own
performance improves with practice and is both empowering and highly motivating.
12. Attention Seeking Behaviors
Unmotivated students frequently seek adult attention.
They can actively demand attention or passively demand attention, and the attention they
seek can be either negative or positive attention.
Positive adult attention can be a highly motivating
factor but only if it is earned by reasonable effort. It can reinforce poor
motivation if it is overdone or given for the wrong reasons. Too much praise makes
"no praise" look like an invitation for attention seeking behaviors. The child
who is motivated by excessive praise may do very little when the praise is absent.
Negative attention for some children is just as
satisfying as positive attention and in fact if they are used to a great deal of negative
attention it may be more comfortable because it is so familiar. Difficult as it is,
ignoring demanding attention seeking behaviors is sometimes more effective than giving negative
attention. However, positive attention should be used to reinforce acceptable behaviors.
Passive students are the most difficult to motivate
because they tend to waste their energy trying to get others to feel sorry for them. They
refuse to take risks, sometimes sabotaging their own efforts to prove they deserve our
pity. It is important to recognize these behaviors and guard against compounding the
problem by being too sympathetic. Sympathy only convinces these students that they really
do have a problem. It is important to recognize the moment when these students actually
make some progress and to give the appropriate attention at that moment. They should
receive a positive attention response any time they take a risk or make an effort.
Competition can enhance or reduce motivation depending
on how it is used. It is good for some, but it may result in a few winners and many losers.
Unmotivated and or underachieving students often have
difficulty dealing with defeat. Until they are ready to cope with defeat it is more
productive to encourage students to compete against their own performance rather than with
Competing against oneself under controlled conditions
means that everyone wins. Use the clock. Time their performance for 1 minute, estimate
what can be accomplished in 5 minutes. And challenge them to beat their own record over a
longer time span. Gradually increase the time factor and expectations. You can challenge
students to compete against their own performance in the quantity and quality of their
productivity, within a specific time frame or it can be used to increase on-task
behavior or decrease inappropriate behavior. In fact most criteria which can be used to evaluate
progress can be used for a student to compete against his/her own previous performance.
The long term goal is to teach children to loose
gracefully and use defeat as motivation to improve. (See self-evaluation.) Eventually
students must be encouraged to see "failure" as a positive experience. Every
loss in competition and every failed attempt is an opportunity to learn what can be
14. Students Need To Understand The
Relevance Of All Their School Activities
Students who do not understand the relevance of a
school activity are not usually motivated to accomplish it unless they are motivated to
please the teacher. (External motivation.) Clearly establish the expected goal and
required method. Let the students know the benefits that will be realized.
This is especially important when no choices are being
15. Perfectionism - Is It Good or Bad?
Perfectionism goes beyond trying to do ones best.
Perfectionism is getting hung-up on being perfect. Students need to take pride in their
work but perfectionists allow their fear of making a mistake to inhibit progress. It can
be seen in the child who keeps erasing everything, or keeps starting over making slow
progress or not finishing. It can sometimes be seen in the child who procrastinates
too much, forgets homework or loses work rather than admit it is not perfect.
These children need to learn that completing work on
time is more important than being perfect, attempting is more important than succeeding,
and failure is an opportunity to learn. Students need to see us (teachers and parents)
making mistakes occasionally. We need to model and demonstrate the process of learning
and recovering from our mistakes.
And we, as teachers need to remember that if it can be
done perfectly, it is probably too easy. If it is perfect they are probably practicing
(rehearsing) previously acquired knowledge or skills and may be learning nothing new at
16. Reinforce Required Strategies
One reason students have difficulty sustaining their
motivation when working independently is because they either don't understand or don't
remember the required strategies. Never assume a student knows how to do something
independently unless you see it demonstrated.
Also children can sometimes remember all of the steps
within a required strategy and still not understand why they are doing them. Conversely
they can understand the strategy but forget the steps or the sequence involved. As Graham
Foster has often said: "Just because it's been taught, doesn't mean it's been
The strategy therefore is to make sure that the skills
required for an independent task are readily available when a student is expected to apply
them. This can be done by oral review, by have students keep a note book on skills and
strategies, or by using posters and skill charts on the walls. When a student appears
unmotivated to work independently have him/her demonstrate that he knows what to
do. Don't be unduly influenced by their ability to verbalize instructions. Verbalizing
instructions means they remember the steps, it does not necessarily mean they know how to
17. Teach A Variety Of Organizational
Students need to know that there are countless numbers
of effective organizational strategies. Initially it may be sufficient to have at least
one effective method. However, as teachers we need to remember that non-sequential
organization is not necessarily disorganized. Some children are very organized but they
may be non-sequential or non- linear in their thought patterns. For these children a
linear sequence of steps 1-10 may be inhibiting. They may be confused by what seems to be
a logical sequence for a sequential thinker.
A variety of organizational strategies encourages
students to build on the strength of their own thinking style, and they will develop an
arsenal of strategies to chose from. Eventually they will learn to vary the strategy to
suit the requirements of the task.
Some apparently unmotivated student are not really
unmotivated but are motivated to follow an inappropriate model. For example a significant
person in their life might be demonstrating the role of "drop-out",
"non-academic", "unsuccessful" or the "I didn't need to work
because I was so clever or because it is boring " type. These students need a
positive role model. Parents should be encouraged to fill this role, or an uncle, aunt,
brother sister or even... the teacher.
Teachers can become role models for students. We can
demonstrate being an effective writer, an independent learner, a good loser etc. When time
permits it is highly effective to model quality work by rewriting a few of their sentences
or brief note facts (jot-notes) and ask them to decide which is better and why.
Peer editing or self evaluation where
rubrics and/or specific criteria is applied to the self-evaluation process
can also serve to illustrate good work habits and quality work.
Differentiate Instruction with Tiered Assignments or Layered Curriculum
is another good way to empower and motivate students. Students are very
much aware how ability levels differ in the average classroom. Ask any
student who in their class required enrichment or who reeds extra help and
they can tell you. In my experience they can also easily identify other
students performing at the same ability level as themselves. With this
awareness comes an understanding that a single classroom activity can
simultaneously be too difficult for some students and too easy for others.
Once the issue of "what is fair" has been clarified students
comfortably adapt to the idea of tiered assignments or Layered curriculum
activities. However, it is necessary to make it clear that treating all
students the same is not
Scaffolding relates to the supportive role that a teacher undertakes to
ensure success in activities where a student is being challenged. By consistent evaluation of student work teachers
just-in-time small group instruction to facilitate students being able to perform effectively at a level above that which they
handle independently. It is important to remember that if a student can
succeed thoroughly independently then he/she is only practicing something
that has already been learned and the student is not being challenged to
construct new meaning in the learning process. When encouraging students to stretch
and take on greater challenges it is important the the teacher provide the
structure and guidance to make the learning successful. Scaffolding
students are intrigued by computers. Applications such as Word Processors,
Desktop Publishing Programs and Authoring programs permit students to revise
and edit their work many times without the tedious process of rewriting it
over and over. The computer produces a neat and attractive presentation
which encourages students to take greater pride in the quality of their
Programming in LOGO, Basic or visual Basic provide opportunities to develop
excellent problem solving & higher level thinking skills, as well as to
develop persistence and tolerance for frustration (essential attitudes for
good problem solving.) This is a particularly valuable
activity for some high ability students who need an interesting challenge.
quality presentations using authoring software, or presentation software,
such as PowerPoint, is also highly motivating for students. It may be
necessary to allow the students to experiment with all the sounds,
animations, transitions and special effects the first time they use the
program. However, we need to guide student in the practice of using special
effect in moderation to emphasize only the most important
motivating (and not nearly as difficult as some teachers may think)
developing web pages to present student work is one of the most highly
motivating activities. If Internet access is a concern, Web pages can be run
right off a disk for viewing only from within the classroom with a single
(possibly portable) computer, or
they can be posted on the Internet for all of the world to see.
Developing computer skills frequently motivates
students to want to produce high quality work, especially when their work is
on view for parents and peers.
of Technology on Classrooms and Students - Increased Motivation and Self
In her book "The Underachieving
Syndrome" Sylvia Rimm defines many causes
for underachievement in students. However her strategies for dealing with students who are
not motivated to learn are summed up in her twelve laws listed below. These laws are
valuable for the development of all students but especially important for poorly motivated
students who are underachieving academically.
1. Children are more likely to be
motivated to achieve if they get the same clear and positive message about school effort
and expectations from both parents.
2. Children learn appropriate
behaviours more easily if they have an effective model.
3. Communication between adults in
front of a child dramatically affects children's behaviours and self -perceptions.
4. Overreactions by parents to child's
successes or failures leads them to feel either intense pressure to succeed or despair and
discouragement in dealing with failure.
5. Children experience more tension
worrying about their work than when they are doing it.
6. Children develop self concept
7. Deprivation and excess exhibit the
same symptoms. (attention, affection, freedom and pressure)
8. Children develop confidence and an
internal sense of control if power is given to them in gradually increasing increments as
they show maturity and responsibility.
9. Children become oppositional if one
adult sides with them against the other parent or a teacher, making them feel more
powerful than the other adult.
10. Adults should avoid confrontations
with children unless they can be sure of the outcomes.
11. Children become achievers only if
they learn to function in competition.
12. Children will continue to achieve
if they usually see the relationship between the learning process and its outcome.
- The Underachievement Syndrome, Causes & Cures. by
Sylvia Rimm (1986)
- Guidebook for Implementing the Trifocal Underachievement
Program for Schools by Sylvia Rimm
- Giftedness, Conflict and Underachievement by Joanne
Whitmore Rand (1980)
- Organizing Thinking by Howard & Sandra Black
Organizers as Thinking Technology
of Graphical Organizers
Priscilla Theroux January 1994